Oct. 11, 2018

Forging ahead on the digital frontier

As the president of Calgary-based VizworX Inc., Jeff LaFrenz BSc (Eng)’85 and MSc ’88 dedicates his technological know-how to forging better connections between people and the digital world in which we live and work.
Jeff Lafrenz

Engineering is at the forefront of every new technology that comes into our lives, from smart phones and virtual reality to global positioning systems and self-driving cars. Graduates from the Schulich School of Engineering are at the leading edge of these advancements, bringing with them critical problem solving skills and an incredible array of innovative solutions. They are pioneers of the digital frontier, continually finding ways to make our work more efficient and our lives more profound.

Mind the (technology) gap

John Carpenter BSc(Eng)’99 is the kind of person who wants to make life easier before you even realize it’s getting hard. As a graduate in Geomatics Engineering and now Partner of Innovation at Jot Digital Inc., Carpenter has spent his career showing companies how new technology can help them get more done in less time.

“The vast majority of industries could take advantage of the technology that’s out there,” he says, "but they don’t have the skills to be able to adapt to it. That’s what I like to help them do.”

In fact, Carpenter believes this is the role many engineers will play in the coming years. He says it will be increasingly important for graduates to use their technical knowledge to recognize how companies function on a broader scale, and to see where patterns of inefficiency and opportunity exist.

The digital road ahead

Carpenter has run a number of high-tech startups that exploit digital advancements in a way larger companies have yet to understand. He says it’s often a matter of demonstrating that the benefits will outweigh what people see as a steep and unforgiving learning curve.

“People get comfortable in their positions,” he says. “They do things because that’s always the way it’s been done and don’t realize that technology could have a large impact on how they’re currently doing work.”

Carpenter says almost every industry is changing as a result of technology, including the role engineers play in society. As professions move through their digital transformations, he says engineers will not only be there to carve the new path, but help people navigate their way forward. 

“When you start thinking about how technology has impacted society on a larger basis, you realize that almost every industry has been dynamically changed—from Über changing cabs to how the Internet dictates how people do advertising,” says  Carpenter.

Seeing eye to binary

Jeff LaFrenz BSc (Eng)’85 and MSc ’88 has worked his way through enough educational and professional pursuits to satisfy five lifetimes, let alone one. And he’s still going. As the president of Calgary-based VizworX Inc., this Electrical Engineer dedicates his technological know-how to forging better connections between people and the digital world in which we live and work. He’s like a relationship counsellor for humans and technology.

“We use a variety of advanced technologies to support better decision making,” he says, “including augmented and virtual reality, artificial intelligence, biometrics, blockchain, web and mobile. We create a whole variety of leading edge digital solutions, but ultimately we’re making it easier for people to make decisions around the data necessary for their business to succeed.”

Schulich roots grow to success

LaFrenz describes VizworX as a University of Calgary success story. LaFrenz founded the company with Frank Maurer, current Associate Dean of Innovation and Strategy for the Faculty of Science, and Sheelagh Carpendale, a world renowned information visualization researcher in the Faculty of Science. The team now includes 28 people, many of whom come from the University of Calgary with masters and doctorate level training. The company boasts a client roster that includes large oil and gas companies, rail companies and government agencies, with the plan of adding defence and aerospace industries in the not so distant future.

“It’s a cross-section of different industries, all of which have a need for better engagement with their data in order to make more informed decisions.”

LaFrenz credits much of his success to what was a relatively new program back in the early 80’s before Schulich was named. It was around the time the personal computer was born and LaFrenz decided to pursue Electrical Engineering with a minor in Computer Engineering. 

“This new program was around teaching engineers how to design computers and what computers even were, for that matter. That grounding allowed me to be at the leading edge of that technology and others, and continues to provide insights a lot of people just don’t see because they don’t have that background.”

 “Computing technology started off very limited, and required humans to adapt to it. Advances in technology now allow it to adapt to humans. Combined with the appropriate software, we can now merge the digital and physical worlds and create experiences that were previously only possible in science fiction,” says LaFrenz.